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What are motivation theories?

3 min read | 8 September, 2020 By Laura Sands


Do you know what makes your staff tick? This is the fundamental question behind motivation theories.

Figuring out who is motivated by what can be a challenge for HR managers and employers. But with only about a third of employees saying they feel engaged, motivation theory has never been more important.

What is motivation theory?

Motivation theory is the study of understanding what drives a person to work towards a particular goal or outcome. It’s relevant to all of society but is especially important to business and management.

That’s because a motivated employee is more productive, and a more productive employee is more profitable. Indeed, research has shown that happy, motivated employees can increase productivity by around 12%.

So how do you motivate your employees and make them happier in the workplace?

Motivation theories: the basics

There are numerous branches of motivation theory but at its simplest, it boils down to two factors:

  • Extrinsic factors. Here people are motivated by external factors such as a bonus for hard work or a sanction if targets are not met.
  • Intrinsic factors. Here people are motivated by a desire to satisfy human needs. These might include a desire to please their boss or to achieve certain professional or personal goals.

Most people are motivated by a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation factors. As a manager, you must understand what that combination is.

Group of employees putting their thumbs up

Using employee motivation theories to increase productivity

Because we’re all different, there’s no single way to motivate individual workers.

There are assessment tools which help you understand what makes a particular employee tick. But better still is a manager who invests time in getting to know his or her staff. This means they understand the different personalities and can figure out their behaviours.

What tools do employers have to improve motivation?

  • Reward – Receiving a bonus or raise can be all the incentive some need to work harder. But reward can take many different forms and could be something as simple as incentive pay or paid time off, gift vouchers or prizes for hitting targets, travel perks or health benefits.
  • Trust –Employees want to know you have their best interests at heart while employers want to know they can trust employees to do a job well. Building a culture around trust creates a positive atmosphere which motivates your staff and benefits productivity.
  • Recognition –It’s simple but recognising an employee’s hard work can have a tremendous impact. It can also spur them on to achieve more. Recognition can take many forms from an informal “thank you” or Kudos to a glitzier employee of the month or year award.
  • Career advancement –One study found that the number one reason for employees leaving their jobs was career development. It makes sense - employees want to use their skills. They also want to learn new skills. If your company doesn’t offer a clear career development path, they may leave. And if they don’t leave, they’ll be far from productive. Combat this by talking to your employees about their career expectations and by building career development into your business.
  • Purpose –Increasing numbers of employees want more from their jobs than a paycheque. Organisational purpose is a strong motivator for many workers – especially younger employees. Engaging your staff with your business’s purpose can help increase commitment to your business and improve motivation.

The pros and cons of motivation theories 

The biggest difficulty of using motivation theories to get the most out of your staff is that there’s no single approach that works for everyone.

Financial reward may be important for some employees but for others it’s a small part of the puzzle. They may be more motivated by the job itself.

Similarly, incentives can be powerful. But beware, if those incentives appeal to only a few employees there is no impetus for other members of staff to increase their productivity.

Positive incentives such as a bonus or negatives incentive such as fear of being laid off, can affect people in different ways. Some employees will be inspired and go on to achieve while others will be consumed by anxiety which can have a detrimental effect on their productivity.

Ultimately, it’s part of a manager’s job to understand what motivates each employee. It’s not a quick and easy task, but the long-term gains of happy employees and increased productivity outweigh the time and effort of uncovering those motivations.

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Posted on 8 September, 2020

By Laura Sands

in Employee Engagement

Tag Employee Engagement

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